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Beck’s ‘Next to Normal’ explores challenging family issues

Here’s a radical idea: Write a musical about mental illness and what it does to a family. The result, “Next to Normal,” not only won its share of Tony Awards, but also a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The current production on stage at the Beck Center powerfully delivers the essence and the overtones of the show to the audience.

In the Studio Theater, the audience is introduced to the Goodman family. Something is radically wrong with Diana, who has an array of psychiatric medicines more numerous than options at a salad bar. You can see the frustration in her long-suffering husband, Dan, and her teenage children Natalie and Gabe. Wait a minute – Gabe died in infancy 18 years ago … Well, he’s a teenager in Diana’s mind.

This family is way beyond normal as they struggle with their troubled past and present. Diana’s pill therapy is not working so she opts to try shock therapy; Natalie is coping with adolescence and may have found a boyfriend in Henry.

This production of “Next to Normal” represents a partnership between the Beck Center and Baldwin Wallace University. Everyone, cast, theater, college and audience, benefit from that partnership. Victoria Bussert’s kinetic direction and David Zody’s organic choreography assaults the audience with the chaos of the family.

Katherine DeBoer, young and beautiful, does not have the stereotypical appearance of a woman far beyond a mental breakdown. She could be your neighbor that you never feel comfortable with. Scott Plate, usually a powerful force on stage, is appropriately muted here, and successfully invites the audience to consider his longtime suffering as he approaches his brink of destruction. Caroline Murrah as daughter Natalie and Ellis Dawson as boyfriend Henry are picture-perfect teenagers facing choices. Like all teens, they make some bad decisions and at the play’s end there is hope for them, but the future has buried landmines that could blow up their dreams. Natalie says, “We can’t be normal. Maybe we can be next to normal.”

Completing the cast is Phil Carroll as a pair of doctors. With facial hair and a disarming demeanor, the psychotherapists come off as just a bit creepy. This reflects the difficult decisions of the family to put trust in the healers.

“Next to Normal” is the rarest of theatrical forms: a chamber musical. The cast of six, backed by eight musicians, is a perfect fit in the intimate Studio. A larger stage, especially a Broadway one, would dilute the power of the show on the audience.

Kudos to the Beck Center for continuing the tradition of giving not only quality productions, but for making selections that are relevant and provocative. The multigenerational audience on the night I attended was totally captivated. “Next to Normal” spoke to each person at his current point in life. Wow. Here we have a textbook example of the the power of theater. “Next to Normal” runs through April 21. I suspect tickets are selling fast.

 

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